With 58 peaks taller than 14,000 feet—more than any other state or province in North America—Colorado lives up to its Rocky Mountain High moniker. But Colorado’s national parks and monuments showcase an astonishing diversity of terrain, from golden dunes to thundering river gorges and protected human-made wonders that date back thousands of years.
1. Rocky Mountain National Park
- Why go: Iconic Colorado peaks and valleys
- Nearest town: Estes Park is the closest to the east entrances, and Grand Lake is closest to the western, Grand Lake entrance.
- Where to stay: There are five campgrounds in the park, as well as plenty of vacation rental options in both Estes Park and Grand Lake.
Moose graze in lush valleys, elk leap across tumbling streams, and trails snake up jagged peaks and drop into lake-studded glacial basins in Colorado’s best-known national park. No wonder RMNP (as locals call it) received a record 4.6 million visitors in 2018, making it the third most popular national park in the country, above even Yosemite and Yellowstone (and after Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Grand Canyon).
Most visitors start their explorations in the central area of Beaver Meadows and Moraine Park, while the west side of the park (Grand Lake entrance) has quieter appeal. Stay in woodsy Grand Lake to spot elk in Coyote Valley or climb 12,100-foot Mount Ida. No trip is complete without a drive along Trail Ridge Road, which crosses the continental divide over a delicate alpine landscape.
Note that RMNP is one of several parks to implement a reservation system in 2021. Reservations go on sale on recreation.gov at 8 a.m. Mountain Time the first day of each month for the following month’s dates (for example, reservations to visit in October go on sale September 1).
2. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
- Why go: Dune sledding and sand boarding
- Nearest city: Colorado Springs (to the north), Durango (to the west), and Santa Fe, New Mexico (to the south) are the closest cities, all about three hours away.
- Where to stay: There are limited accommodation options nearby, but you can camp at Piñon Flats Campground within the park or several hike-in, backpacking campgrounds. Advanced reservations for Piñon Flats sites and permits for backcountry camping are needed.
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is one of the nation’s more underrated national parks. But for those who make the effort to get here, it’s an incredible sight: The Great Sand Dunes sit with the white-capped Sangre de Cristo range behind them, left behind by a prehistoric lake more than a million years ago.
And yes, you can hike the dunes—High Dune and Star Dune are two favorites—then sand sled or sand board down. First-timers should start close to the Visitor Center parking lot, while aficionados can head for steeper slopes at the Point of No Return parking lot.
Starting with the spring snowmelt, seasonal Medano Creek emerges from the mountains and winds between the dunes, creating a sandy beach where families build sand castles and swimmers sunbathe until the late summer sun dries up the flow.
3. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
- Why go: Dramatic crevasses that rival the Grand Canyon
- Nearest city: Montrose is 30 minutes from the South Rim and Crawford is 30 minutes from the North Rim entrance.
- Where to stay: Black Canyon of the Gunnison has several campgrounds within the park as well as basic hotel options in Montrose and Crawford.
Slicing through marbled rock walls, the Gunnison River carved a canyon so deep that, at its narrowest point, sunlight reaches the bottom for only half an hour a day. Most people gaze into the depths from Dragon Point, Devil’s Lookout, and other viewpoints along South Rim Drive or walk the Chasm View nature trail on the north rim. There are no maintained trails into the canyon, although experienced hikers with wilderness permits venture down unmarked routes.
Designated an International Dark Sky Park in 2015, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park hosts sky parties during the summer (currently on hiatus for 2021). So if you have the time, book a campsite and plan to spend a night camping in the park.
4. Mesa Verde National Park
- Why go: Learn about the Ancestral Puebloans of Mesa Verde
- Nearest city: The towns of Mancos and Cortez are 10 and 15 minutes to the park, respectively, but you’ll find more accommodation options in Durango, 40 minutes away.
- Where to stay: Mesa Verde has one campground and a lodge (Far View Lodge) inside the park. Alternatively, book a cabin at Majestic Dude Ranch in Mancos.
The Ancestral Puebloans of Mesa Verde, like those who inhabited Canyon de Chelly and other Arizona sites, carved their dwellings in the protective shadow of cliffs, constructing elaborate, multi-level communities high above the canyon floor.
Today, Mesa Verde National Park—a UNESCO World Heritage site—protects more than 4,000 such ruins dating as far back as 650 C.E. While you can see the most spectacular dwellings from viewpoints on Mesa Loop Road, you can only enter Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Long House on ranger-led tours. Petroglyph Point Trail offers excellent views and a chance to see some of the park’s best rock art.
5. Canyons of the Ancients National Monument
- Why go: More archaeological sites than any other U.S. park
- Nearest city: The closest towns are Dolores and Cortez, though Mancos is also a good homebase, especially if you want to explore this park in tandem with Mesa Verde.
- Where to stay: Although there’s no official campground, camping is allowed in the monument’s backcountry.
Most visitors are surprised to discover that Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, 12 miles from Mesa Verde, has more archaeological sites than any other park in the country—6,300 are scattered across its rugged 176,000 acres. Wander through the park’s star attraction, the 40-room Lowry Pueblo with its eerily well-preserved great kiva ceremonial room, then try your hand at weaving, corn grinding, and archaeological identification at the interactive Canyons of the Ancients Visitor Center and Museum.
6. Dinosaur National Monument
- Why go: For prehistoric fossils and water sports
- Nearest city: Vernal and Jensen, Utah, are the closest towns to the main, western entrance (technically on the Utah side of the monument). Steamboat Springs is about 90 minutes from the east entrance on the Colorado side.
- Where to stay: There are several developed campgrounds in Dinosaur National Monument, as well as backcountry camping by permit. If you prefer four walls and a roof, a vacation rental in Vernal is your best bet.
If you’ve ever wanted to see—and touch—gigantic dinosaur bones jutting out of the rock where they were found, head to Dinosaur National Monument, which spans across the Colorado-Utah border. But visitors also come to swim, boat, and explore Echo Park, the area where the Yampa and Green Rivers meet and loop around Steamboat Rock in an almost perfect horseshoe bend.
If you plan to stay the night and camp, you’re in luck. Dinosaur National Monument has also been designated an International Dark Sky Park, and those who stay past sunset will be rewarded with some incredible stargazing.
7. Browns Canyon National Monument
- Why go: Whitewater rafting and wildlife viewing
- Nearest city: The artsy towns of Buena Vista and Salida—also stops on one of our favorite Colorado road trips—are closest to the monument.
- Where to stay: Yes, you could camp nearby but there are some stand-out accommodation options nearby as well: European-esque Surf Hotel in Buena Vista and retro Amigo Motor Lodge in Salida.
Established in 2015, Browns Canyon is best known for whitewater rafting on the Arkansas River, which tumbles over Class IV and V rapids with names like Pinball and Seidel’s Suckhole. The 22,000-acre park’s rugged terrain also offers prime wildlife viewing; hike the Turret Trail to spot black bear fishing the river, bighorn sheep jousting on rocky outcrops, and falcons and eagles gliding on the canyon’s updrafts.
This article was originally published in May 13, 2019, and was updated in July 2021 with extra information. Jessie Beck contributed to the reporting of this story.